From Cardiff University [Prifysgol Caerdydd](WLS): “Unravelling the mysteries of the first land plants” 

From Cardiff University [Prifysgol Caerdydd](WLS)

25 January 2022
Professor Dianne Edwards
Research Professor

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Recent palaeobotanical research on early terrestrial ecosystems hints at the existence of a novel and previously unknown major group of early land plants.

Twin papers from Professor Dianne Edwards and her team, published in the journal New Phytologist, [here and here] have uncovered pieces of a persistent puzzle, which, when solved, will provide the key to a better understanding of the early evolution of land plants.

Through careful examination of minute fossils preserved in charcoal from the earliest Devonian strata (c. 415 Myr old) and detailed comparative work on existing plants, research led by the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences documented fossils bearing similarities to plants still in existence. Lacking physical evidence the authors stop short of drawing direct connections between the two types of fossils. Nevertheless, the fossils provide evidence for the existence of a major group of early plants called the eophytes.

The eophytes are best understood in the context of the early history of land plants. All living vascular plants share vascular tissues containing specialised water-conducting cells known as tracheids, for which they are referred to as tracheophytes, and branched sporophytes, which underpin their classification as polysporangiophytes. These two characters separate vascular plants from the nonvascular plant lineages collectively referred to as bryophytes, which are comprised of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts.

The evidence available is inconclusive as to whether tracheid-based water-conducting tissue and sporophyte branching evolved simultaneously in the common ancestor of vascular plants, or in a sequence. And, if so, in what order the evolution occurred. The discovery of eophytes brings us one step closer to confirming the ancestral polysporangiophyte and suggests promising threads to follow, but also presents further questions.

The eophytes could be the ancestral polysporangiophytes, if their branched sporophytes and food-conducting cells evolved in concert and not sequentially – a question that can be solved only by new fossil discoveries.

The discovery of the eophytes raises the question of their position in the evolutionary relationship as well as implications for character evolution deep in the history of land plants. Given their combination of characters, of which different subsets are shared with the bryophytes and with polysporangiophytes, the eophytes could occupy several positions in the evolution of early land plants. To address this, Professor Edwards advocates for further comparative studies of densely sampled extant bryophyte lineages for the anatomy and ultrastructure of the food-conducting cells.

The incongruence between patterns of relationships implied by the traditional evolutionary sequence and the sequence of appearance of polysporangiophyte characters is deepened by the discovery of eophytes. This further complicates the mystery in two other directions. First, it indicates that a lot was happening in morphological evolution during the Silurian and Early Devonian (c. 445–400 Ma) and much of that is unknown, for now. Second, it shows that some of the evolutionary changes that are vital to untangling patterns of relationships were occurring at very small scales in these organisms.

The first direction points to the incomplete exploration of the fossil record and suggests another important thread to follow: renewed investigations of the Silurian and Lower Devonian rock records for new plant fossils. The second indicates that integrating the new fossils in evolutionary discussions will necessitate observations of fine anatomical and ultrastructural detail, which will require fossil localities where the quality of preservation allows for levels of observational detail like those reported by the eophyte fossils.

The work of Professor Edwards and her team, including Jennifer Morris and Lindsey Axe (Cardiff University), Wilson Taylor (The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (US)), Jeffrey Duckett, Paul Kenrick, and Silvia Pressel (The Natural History Museum-London (UK)), adds an important chapter demonstrating the irreplaceable role of fossils in probing the deepest recesses of plant evolution.

See the full article here .


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The Cardiff Unversity [Prifysgol Caerdydd] (WLS) is a public research university in Cardiff, Wales. Founded in 1883 as the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (University College Cardiff from 1972), it became a founding college of the University of Wales in 1893. It merged with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) in 1988 to form the University of Wales College, Cardiff (University of Wales, Cardiff from 1996). In 1997 it received its own degree-awarding powers, but held them in abeyance. The college adopted the public name Cardiff University in 1999; in 2005 this became its legal name, when it became an independent university and began awarding its own degrees.

Cardiff University is the third oldest university in Wales and contains three colleges: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Biomedical and Life Sciences; and Physical Sciences and Engineering. It is the only Welsh member of The Russell Group Association(UK). In 2018–2019, Cardiff had a turnover of £537.1 million, including £116.0 million in research grants and contracts. It has an undergraduate enrolment of 23,960 and a total enrolment of 33,190 (according to HESA data for 2018/19) making it one of the ten largest UK universities. The Cardiff University Students’ Union works to promote student interests in the university and further afield.

Discussions on the founding of a university college in South Wales began in 1879, when a group of Welsh and English MPs urged the government to consider the poor provision of higher and intermediate education in Wales and “the best means of assisting any local effort which may be made for supplying such deficiency.”

In October 1881, William Gladstone’s government appointed a departmental committee to conduct “an enquiry into the nature and extent of intermediate and higher education in Wales”, chaired by Lord Aberdare and consisting of Viscount Emlyn, Reverend Prebendary H. G. Robinson, Henry Richard, John Rhys and Lewis Morris. The Aberdare Report, as it came to be known, took evidence from a wide range of sources and over 250 witnesses and recommended a college each for North Wales and South Wales, the latter to be located in Glamorgan and the former to be the established University College of Wales in Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University [Prifysgol Aberystwyth](WLS)). The committee cited the unique Welsh national identity and noted that many students in Wales could not afford to travel to universities in England or Scotland. It advocated a national degree-awarding university for Wales, composed of regional colleges, which should be non-sectarian in nature and exclude the teaching of theology.

After the recommendation was published, Cardiff Corporation sought to secure the location of the college in Cardiff, and on 12 December 1881 formed a University College Committee to aid the matter. There was competition to be the site between Swansea and Cardiff. On 12 March 1883, after arbitration, a decision was made in Cardiff’s favour. This was strengthened by the need to consider the interests of Monmouthshire, at that time not legally incorporated into Wales, and the greater sum received by Cardiff in support of the college, through a public appeal that raised £37,000 and a number of private donations, notably from the Lord Bute and Lord Windsor. In April Lord Aberdare was appointed as the College’s first president. The possible locations considered included Cardiff Arms Park, Cathedral Road, and Moria Terrace, Roath, before the site of the Old Royal Infirmary buildings on Newport Road was chosen.

The University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire opened on 24 October 1883 with courses in Biology, Chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Mathematics and Astronomy, Music, Welsh, Logic and Philosophy, and Physics. It was incorporated by Royal Charter the following year, this being the first in Wales to allow the enrollment of women, and specifically forbidding religious tests for entry. John Viriamu Jones was appointed as the University’s first Principal at the age of 27. As Cardiff was not an independent university and could not award its own degrees, it prepared its students for examinations of The University of London (UK) or for further study at The University of Oxford (UK) or The University of Cambridge (UK).

In 1888 the University College at Cardiff and that of North Wales (now Bangor University [Prifysgol Bangor](WLS)) proposed to the University College Wales at Aberystwyth joint action to gain a university charter for Wales, modelled on that of Victoria University (UK), a confederation of new universities in Northern England. Such a charter was granted to the new University of Wales in 1893, allowing the colleges to award degrees as members. The Chancellor was set ex officio as the Prince of Wales, and the position of operational head would rotate among heads of the colleges.

In 1885, Aberdare Hall opened as the first hall of residence, allowing women access to the university. This moved to its current site in 1895, but remains a single-sex hall. In 1904 came the appointment of the first female associate professor in the UK, Millicent Mackenzie, who in 1910 became the first female full professor at a fully chartered UK university.

In 1901 Principal Jones persuaded Cardiff Corporation to give the college a five-acre site in Cathays Park (instead of selling it as they would have done otherwise). Soon after, in 1905, work on a new building commenced under the architect W. D. Caröe. Money ran short for the project, however. Although the side-wings were completed in the 1960s, the planned Great Hall has never been built. Caroe sought to combine the charm and elegance of his former (Trinity College, Cambridge) with the picturesque balance of many Oxford colleges. On 14 October 1909 the “New College” building in Cathays Park (now Main Building) was opened in a ceremony involving a procession from the “Old College” in Newport Road.

In 1931, the School of Medicine, founded as part of the college in 1893 along with the Departments of Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology, Pharmacology, was split off to form the Welsh National School of Medicine, which was renamed in 1984 the University of Wales College of Medicine.

In 1972, the institution was renamed University College Cardiff.